The active imagination of a child can often confuse fantasy with reality, and for many kids those imaginations run wild at night, often manifesting any anxieties or unknowns as a fear of being alone in the dark. This can be disruptive to healthy sleeping patterns, erode self confidence, and cause a great deal of stress for parents and children.
A fear of the dark is quite common amongst young children, and there are lots of simple steps you can take to help your child overcome these worries and deal with their fears.
Be Sensitive and Understanding
When your child comes to you with their fears, whether it’s in the dead of night or a daytime discussion, it’s important to show sympathy and be understanding of his/her problem. Dismissing or even ridiculing these fears can be an easy mistake to make, especially if you’re trying to deal with the problem at night while tired and irritable.
Try not to get frustrated with your child, but rather address these feelings with sensitivity and understand that, to your child, these fears are real. A negative reaction can increase anxiety and potentially exacerbate the problem.
Communicate and Reassure
Calmly discuss these fears with your child. Ask him/her what it is they are afraid of and ask what your child thinks might make him/her feel better, safer or less afraid. Make suggestions to your child about how you think he/she might overcome these fears, like turning the light on, leaving the door open or taking a special toy to bed.
Let your child know that you understand how he/she feels, that you understand what it is like to be scared and that you can see that he/she is afraid, so as not to dismiss or belittle their feelings. Then reassure your child that they are safe from harm and address their specific fears; for example, if your child is afraid of monsters, explain that they do not exist and cannot harm children, or if it’s intruders that scares him/her, show them the safety precautions in your home, like locks and security screens.
Provide a Safe and Comfortable Environment
Make sure your child’s bedroom is somewhere they can feel safe and comfortable, even during the night when he/she might wake up feeling scared. You might choose to provide a night light that stays on throughout the night, or a lamp next to the kids’ bunk beds that your child can switch on when he/she is afraid. A favourite toy or comforter might also help. Make sure that you take on your child’s suggestions and try to provide practical measures to make your child feel safe, peaceful, and remain undisturbed during sleep.
You might choose to reward your child for being brave, for example, providing a small treat or a special sticker on a chart when he/she goes a whole night without getting out of bed to wake you. Do not punish your child for his/her feelings, or for coming to you with these fears, as this can be detrimental to his/her confidence and increase anxiety.
Try to ensure a good night’s sleep for your child by sticking to a consistent sleep schedule. Have a regular time each day for both lights-out and wake-up time, which should remain consistent even through the weekends.
Try to ensure the content they are exposed to before bed in books, on TV or on the computer, are appropriate to their age and are free of violence or scary content that might encourage anxiety and fear.
Regular exercise also helps to alleviate stress, so make sure your kids get plenty of physical activity during the day. This will also tire them out and expend their energy meaning they should sleep better at night.
If your child’s fear continues or worsens despite taking these steps, you might choose to consult a children’s counselor. A professional can help both you and your child with coping mechanisms and preventative actions.
Whatever the fear, it’s possible to work with your child to understand and overcome these fears, meaning a better night’s sleep for the family and a strong and confident child.